Here are two things that everyone everywhere needs to know about everyone else:
- People do the best they can with what they know.
- All behavior makes sense when viewed in context.
This is true for ourselves and our friends and family and definitely for our kids.
Knowing this about each other can make it easier to understand — if not approve — of other people’s choices. Likely if we could stand in their shoes at just the right moment, that thing they just did that we think looks like a very bad idea would make perfect sense.
Take Amelia Bedelia. Now when I was a kid, I could not stand Amelia Bedelia because she was so silly. Amelia Bedelia, in case you did not know, is a fictional maid in picture books who is forever doing dumb things like putting raw chicken in baby clothes (because her employee asked her to “dress the chicken”) or putting sponges in cake (because her employee requested a “sponge cake”). But Amelia Bedelia is certainly doing the best she can and if you stood in her shoes — shoes that are on the feet of someone extremely literal — her choices would all make perfect sense.
Kids can be a lot like Amelia Bedelia (grown ups can be, too, but let’s stick with kids here because I’m filing this entry under the “parenting” category). They can do something that we can clearly see is a very bad idea and we can say to them, “Why did you do this?” And kids say, “I don’t know.” Because they don’t know; it just made sense when they did it. That’s why they lose their homework and hit their baby siblings and eat the last cupcake that didn’t belong to them and watch television instead of picking up their toys. It made perfect sense at the time.
If you assumed your child really was doing the best she could at the time — even if at the time she was leaving her lunchbox at school — how might that change how you consider and deal with the problem? Might you think about the last time you left your cell phone at work or left your wallet on the kitchen table? These things happen when we’re overwhelmed or under slept or chatting with friends while we pack up to leave. We do the best we can and then sometimes we have to deal with the consequences when the best we can do isn’t so great.
What about your child who hits his baby sister every time your back is turned? What if you thought about the problem with the belief that he’s doing the best he can with what he knows. What does he need to know? In what way does his behavior make sense to him? I’m not talking about letting him off the hook but when we understand what’s going on our interventions are more likely to work. Maybe he needs more supervision. Maybe he needs help with emotional regulation. Maybe he’s imitating his big brother.
Assuming there’s a reason behind behavior — even if it’s a lousy reason — gives us tools to solve real problems.
We’ve always liked Andy Dwyer at our house and we hear the guy who plays him does some pretty nice things but I’m sharing this clip of Chris Pratt on The Ellen Show (heads up courtesy of Jezebel) because it illustrates some great parenting.
First, this guy knows about child development as evidenced by his understanding that the “terrible” twos are developmentally appropriate since many toddlers are frustrated by their inability to share the complex wants and wishes that drive their behavior. (This is why they freak out about details — the wrong shirt, the wrong spoon for the cereal, the wrong way to open a door and enter a room — they have a very specific idea about what they want and they can’t communicate it to you.) Knowing about child behavior can really help us be better parents because it explains so much; that helps us be more understanding and perhaps less frustrated. And having a grasp of our child’s development holds the keys to an effective response since knowing what drives the behavior helps point us in the direction to address it.
That bit about letting his son stay up later? See, that’s a parenting choice that I think is super personal and isn’t right or wrong. It’s not a problem if it’s not a problem and if it becomes a problem, well, that’s the time to change. I think people get hung up on details like this (how to do bedtime) but what we’re seeing at play here is the ongoing creation of a responsive relationship. You might do it differently. You might enforce bedtime anyway and that’s fine, too.
The second great thing he does is prepare his son for a potentially hectic situation. He does this gently in a way that suits his pretty articulate kid and he’s open to his son’s response. That shows terrific attunement, focusing on the situation and his son’s needs and then communicating in a way that allows his child room to create his own response. The holidays are rough for all of us and acknowledging that can be a huge, huge help in keeping everyone sane.
Ok watch the clip and then I’ve got a little more below.
Ok, so that thing where he warns his son and his son responds with a heartwarming platitude and Chris tears up just talking about it? That’s swell. But the thing that struck me is often we parents start with the platitude. We start with the expectation that this holiday is going to be fun, dangit! And wholesome! And everyone is going to have a really good time!!! And our children are saying (in words and deeds), Well, I’m overwhelmed. I find Santa terrifying. This mall is too crowded. This holiday food is too complicated. I want my routine. And we get super frustrated because we’re already stressed and then our grand plans are falling apart and our kids are melting down and Aunt Lucy is making that disapproving face she makes and ARGH!!!!!
So it’s a good reminder that before all this happens, we always have the opportunity to remember last time. We can remember how the last holiday went or how the last trip to the mall, the zoo, the visit to Dave & Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese went and we can prepare ahead of time. We can also prepare our kids, “Do you remember how last time at Chuck E. Cheese you started feeling overwhelmed?” (this gives language to that feeling they have) “Remember it felt too loud?” (you can problem-solve for this, offer earplugs or a signal to get the heck out) Maybe your child will look up at you all doe-eyed and adorable (Chris Pratt’s son) and say, “It’s family.” Or maybe they’ll say what my son used to say, “I’m not going.” (My kid missed so many birthday parties as a sensitive toddler/preschooler/schoolager!) But you’ll get to process it and make good decisions before disaster strikes. (For the things my son could NOT miss, we did a lot of planning about how to manage it. Code words that meant, “Mom, Dad, please help me find someplace quiet to calm down,” Quiet days before the big event. Exit strategies. Plans to wind down after.)
Anyway, that Chris Pratt is charming. Good stuff. Good parenting. And nice to see on a daytime talk show.
One of the hardest thing for us parents to wrap our heads around is how often we have to repeat ourselves.
“Shut the door.”
“Pick up your shoes.”
“No, you can’t have cookies for dinner.”
“Hitting is against the rules in this house.”
You’d think they’d figure it out after the 457th time we’ve said it and yet there we go, repeating ourselves over and over and over again.
There’s a reason we have to turn into broken records; our kids are always growing and so they need to learn some things over and over and over again.
When your child grows from one stage into a new stage she’s learning things in an entirely new context. She has new developmental tasks to master, new facts to contemplate, and new skills to integrate. In this entirely new environment the things you’ve taught her — shut the door, pick up your shoes, etc. — don’t mean what they used to mean and she has to learn them again.
For example, your average everyday 3-year old may be pretty good about not slamming the door. She’s anxious to please you, likes your approval and wants to prove what a big girl she is. That’s the context she’s learning that whole “shut the door quietly” rule.
That very same child as a 4-year old may start slamming the door again. Her curiosity may be more intense at this age so she may be so anxious to move onto the next thing that the door slams behind her before she even notices. 4-year olds may also be more interested in challenging adults, leading to more door slamming because now she wants to explore what happens when she breaks your rules.
Totally the same behavior happening in totally different contexts with totally different things to learn. We just see the annoying behavior, we just hear ourselves saying it yet again — “Don’t slam the door!” — but for her it’s not just a slamming door, it’s a whole new thing to learn in a whole new way.
What parents need is faith that all of our repetition is sinking in because it is. We also need to know that continued commitment to the house rules and values create a structure that makes it safe for our children to grow and that part of that growth includes challenging that structure. It’s not easy, I know, but know that with every repetition you are offering your child a new opportunity to learn.
Parenting is a long-haul operation, lemme tell you. Hang in there!
And now for your listening pleasure (because parents need a little pleasure to get through some of this rough stuff) is The Bird and The Bee singing Again & Again.
The Bird And The Bee “Again and Again” from Miky Wolf on Vimeo.
I’ve been asked about my thoughts on Lena Dunham and the passages in her book that detail her sexual behavior with her sister. At first I declined to post them here because I felt like there have already been so many people talking about it that I really had nothing to add to the discussion. But then I realized that as a therapist and with the understanding that you might be wondering if I’m the right therapist for you or your child, I ought to weigh in for no other reason that my clients — current or potential — have the right to know where I stand on such a contentious and difficult issue. So here are my thoughts.
First, I haven’t read the book and I have no plans to; I’ve only read the quotes and passages (that link will allow you to read them, too) that have appeared on other sites. Because of this, I can’t really discuss the context in which those quotes and passages appear, which is one reason I can only speak in generalities. Also I don’t know Lena Dunham or her sister, Grace (obviously) and I don’t know the family in which they grew up and I don’t know the way their relationship was or is now. I only have these passages, which are in Lena’s words and further words in a memoir, which means they have been shaped for a general thesis. This means that I can’t really trust their reliability. Therefore any commentary I am making about Lena Dunham and her sister aren’t really about them; my commentary is more about our general discussion of child bodily exploration, sexual play and the potential & possibility for sexual abuse between siblings.
Child sex play is a normal, developmentally appropriate part of growing up. Some children keep to a mild “show me yours and I’ll show you mine” and some may do more graphic sexual play. What makes it play and not abuse is the absence of a power differential and coercion and this can be very hard to ferret out. A six year age difference — Lena is six years older than her sister — is always concerning. Always. Whether or not it is sexual abuse or a serious boundary issue depends a whole lot on exactly what happened, how and when. Is it a one time thing? A pattern of enmeshment? Is it straight forward bodily exploration or is the more powerful sibling using the younger sibling for his or her sexual satisfaction or to act out an unhealthy power dynamic? What is certain is that a relationship that Lena describes (while acknowledging that the reality of that particular relationship may be much different) deserves more attention from parents.
This leads me to a discussion of culture. Family cultures differ and so family boundaries differ. There are families where privacy and general touching (hugs and cuddling) are more or less important, which is another thing that needs to be considered as we talk about boundaries and the violation of boundaries. While there are values that we as a broader community can agree on, there are others that are murky. When I read the quoted passages I feel I’m also missing this important context. I do not know what (if anything) her parents did about their relationship. I don’t know if Lena was reprimanded for the intensity of any of her actions towards her sister (the bribes with candy and quarters). I don’t know if Grace protested or if she was silent (not that her silence equals consent but I don’t know how much her parents were aware of their dynamic). In my office I sometimes see some parents describe a closeness that I, as a therapist, find concerning but I can’t know at first glance. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and misunderstand what’s actually happening. It takes continued discussion, questions, and observation to get a better sense of what’s going on. So when I feel my antennae go up I remind myself to go slowly and listen hard.
I also want to honor Grace’s right to label and define her own experience. Grace has said she does not see herself as a victim; I believe her and want to give space for her assertion. I also want to give her space to think differently at some point if she chooses to. Many of us think about our family of origin in one way and then we grow to think about it in another way later on. This is our right and important part of growth and empowerment. Whatever I may think of how I might feel if I were Grace, I am not her and in this important conversation about violation, I do not want to participate in a violation of her right to speak her truth.
In other words, this is a discussion that we need to be having but I think it’s extremely important that we do not expect her to uphold our own take or Lena’s take on their relationship or the scenes Lena describes.
These are things I do know.
Kids make mistakes. Some of those mistakes will certainly be violating the boundaries of siblings, cousins, friends and pets. In some cases those boundary violations may be bodily (kids who hit, hug too hard, hold down a cat who wants to get up) and sometimes those bodily boundary violations may be sexual. It is normal and developmentally expected that a child’s self-centeredness would lead to boundary violations. Remember that normal does not mean OK; I am not excusing or shrugging off the seriousness of boundary violations.
I am also not saying that normal means that no one gets hurt. One child’s normal behavior can harm another child. I mean, it’s normal for toddlers to bite but that does not mean it’s ok and it does not mean that the child doing the biting does not hurt the child who is bitten. Normal does not mean we ignore things.
If the type of activity Lena describes truly was typical of her behavior then her parents should have been intervening. (They may have been; we don’t know because we only have Lena’s side of the story.)
If one child is treating another child as a toy or as an object, that’s concerning and needs interrupting whether or not that treatment includes sex play. If a parent only jumps because the play turns sexual, that’s a problem because I would argue that there is likely a pattern of coercive play that needs parental attention and intervention. To a child, dressing up a reluctant pet and coercing a sibling into allowing genital exploration may come from the same misunderstanding of the division between self and others.
It’s our job as parents to protect our children from each other and also from themselves. Many of carry a great deal of guilt for the way we treated our siblings when we were kids but we needed adult help to figure things out. We can own our responsibility but also acknowledge that our childhood selves did the best they could with what they were taught; many of us were not taught how to treat each other.
Sometimes parents have trouble intervening because they don’t know what good boundaries between siblings looks like since we were not protected from ourselves or from a violating sibling. We see a certain amount of roughhousing and conflict as perfectly normal and it’s true — some of that is normal. But we should pay special attention when:
- One child is always the victim;
- One child is much older or stronger or otherwise more powerful;
- If we detect real hostility in the interactions;
- If the hostility is pervasive (if they never really get along).
In the case of sexual boundary play, I would also check in to ask where the children got the idea. Sex play is common in kids, absolutely, but a check in can help us know if something is happening to the child who is acting out (did they learn this from another child? from sexual abuse at the hands of an adult? unsupervised time watching HBO?). I would ask parents not to react as if sex play is always concerning but I would ask them to remember that sometimes it is.
Interventions do not have to be shaming. Parents can and should interrupt inappropriate behavior in a way that promotes empathy, compassion and an understanding of where a child leaves off and the other person begins. This starts when we protect that child’s boundaries. That means no forced hugs, no forced kisses, no forced sitting on Santa’s lap. There are lots of times where we have no choice (diapers changes of wriggly toddlers!) so when we can protect our child’s right to say no, we need to do that.
Finally parents need to be aware of their own understanding of boundaries and violation. Many parents who are struggling with their children’s sibling relationships are acting out their own experiences growing up. When I talk to parents in my office I’m always interested to know where they are in their own family configurations because this can illuminate my understanding of dynamics they are repeating (or trying not to repeat) in their own homes.
It also helps me understand why some parents are reluctant or afraid to make changes. To say, “This should not be happening to my youngest” may mean saying, “This should not have happened to me” or “This is not something I should have done to my sibling.” These are painful things to confront and I see some of that happening in the discussion around Lena and her sister.
We all come to our reading loaded down with our own baggage and it’s pretty hard not to bring that to a discussion about someone else’s very biased, perhaps somewhat fictional, and certainly manipulative (in the way that all writing — even this — is meant to sway the reader) story.
I don’t know what happened between Lena and Grace, not really. I cannot speak to it. I can only speak to the general things I know to be true and hope that I can help the individuals and families who come to me for care, informed by what I know about kids, about siblings, about families and about the truly hard work we all do growing up.
Another therapist commented on this post about finding a new therapist and I thought it’d be great to bring it over to a new post and continue the discussion. Anna said:
I agree that being a good fit is important. I try my best to be a good therapist and I believe I am open to clients sharing anything with me. I believe in creating a non-judgmental environment. I even like when clients say they are mad at me or didn’t like something I said. It tells me we have that open relationship to talk about those things and sometimes those discussions lead to a greater understand of the situation. Yet, I sometimes get clients who don’t seem to connect with me, or maybe I don’t connect with them. These are the clients who don’t stay long. I’d love any suggestions on how to improve this (if it can be improved). I wonder if sometimes you just have to find the right therapist for you. I have an example without giving any specifics, I had a client recently who called asking for help with a certain issue. Whenever I brought the issue up, the client deflected. I tried working on other issues because I didn’t want to push too hard but the client kept going to “safe” topics. Needless to say, the client quit coming. Do you have any suggestions for this situation? Does it mean it isn’t a good fit or the client isn’t ready? Any suggestions are welcome.
I don’t think that any therapist can be the right counselor for every client because we are all so very, very different. I think sometimes a client who doesn’t get very far from us may not be ready to go far but also I think sometimes they just aren’t going to be able to do that work with us.
As to whether it’s because we’re not a good fit or because the client isn’t ready, sometimes I don’t think we’ll get to know. Sometimes it might be a little bit of both.
And that makes me think about counselor ego (not that Anna brought this up but it made me think about it).
Being a therapist is weird because we don’t really get any feedback. I mean, we do, we get feedback from our clients but given the nature of counselor/client relationships, we can’t really go with that. Sometimes a client will say, “I love working with you!” and it’s because we’re not being confrontational enough (like Anna says, sometimes our clients need to be mad at us and maybe NOT love working with us, at least not right in that moment). And we get to be witness to client success but any therapist worth her salt knows that client success belongs to the client.
Besides we can’t get our egos all wrapped up in any definition of success like a marriage saved or a job promotion secured or a child who learns how to behave because that’s a very limited view of success. Sometimes success looks like understanding a marriage is over or quitting a job or realizing that “good” behavior in one child doesn’t look like “good” behavior in another.
But back to the bad fit — this is one of those go with your gut things. If you feel like it’s time to push a client, then push. If you feel she isn’t ready, don’t push. I also think that in these cases where we’re not sure that we should seek out peer support. I don’t think any counselor — no matter how experienced — ought to be working in isolation. That means finding peers whose skills and knowledge overlap in some ways (so they can help give you perspective on kids if you work with kids) and don’t overlap in other ways (so they can help broaden your ability to work with all kinds of people).
If connection is an ongoing problem, if a counselor is feeling like her connection rate is down, then I’d say it might be time to look into some counseling ourselves. When we’re depleted or overwhelmed or preoccupied with other things, sometimes this can come through in our ability to be present with our clients. We might need help focusing on some self care or getting the attention we need (because to give loving attention we need to be getting loving attention).
If you are the client who isn’t connecting, I’d bring it up to the therapist if you feel comfortable or if you think the relationship is worth salvaging. Remember, it’s your relationship with your counselor that is the best predictor of your success in therapy so if you’re not feeling it, talk to her or go elsewhere. Just don’t give up on counseling because there are a zillion and one counselors out there, which means there is definitely the right one for you.